What is Mario without his legacy? It’s hard to ignore how integral the original Super Mario Bros. was to the revival of console gaming back in the 80’s. 3D video games as we know them changed when Super Mario 64 launched alongside the Nintendo 64 in the 90’s. Even Super Mario Galaxy expanded the way we thought of this seminal franchise almost ten years ago to the day. But what does Super Mario Odyssey achieve that all the past Mario games haven’t?
Super Mario Odyssey, even with the lofty expectations set forth by its predecessors, soars in almost every way imaginable. Every inch of the game is drenched in creative expression. Every nook and cranny of its various worlds is filled with something new to explore. Each gameplay element – each enemy, purple coin, and Power Moon – they’re all placed with the utmost thought and intent. Super Mario Odyssey is the culmination of Nintendo’s efforts in the series. It’s Mario at the top of his game, and his is a game three decades in the making.
The Big Picture
Super Mario Odyssey‘s plot treads familiar ground. Bowser, yet again, kidnaps Princess Peach. Like so many times before, Bowser intends to marry her – whether she likes it or not. And Mario goes on a whimsical adventure to save her. Though Odyssey is more cinematic than any Mario game before it (its lighting, camera angles, sound effects and more are used to great effect in numerous cutscenes), it does little to branch out from the traditional Mario narrative.
The biggest change around is Cappy. A sentient hat capable of “capturing” 52 unique enemies throughout the game. Mario travels with this new companion across more than a dozen colorful kingdoms during Super Mario Odyssey‘s campaign. From the Mexican-themed deserts of the Sand Kingdom to the towering skyscrapers of the Metro Kingdom, the game blazes new trails that the franchise hasn’t gone before.
Just as you think you know the pattern each Kingdom will follow – find new enemies to capture, take down the wedding-planning rabbit baddies known as the Broodals, obtain a certain number of Power Moons necessary to fuel the Odyssey and travel to the next Kingdom – Super Mario Odyssey throws strange and exciting curveballs at you. Whether the Odyssey breaks down, or Bowser unexpectedly forces you into a detour, nothing goes quite as planned. And that’s a good thing.
Some Kingdoms are massive, housing dozens upon dozens of Power Moons and upwards of 100 unique purple coins to earn. Some are considerably smaller, acting almost as pit stops on a sprawling adventure. These locations all feel connected, despite being varied and peculiar. Maybe it’s the buttery-smooth controls, or the “I can’t believe this is running on a handheld” caliber graphics, but the entire game has a sense of connectedness that hasn’t been present in the series since Super Mario Sunshine.
Even the captured enemies are intuitive to handle and make sense in their bizarre settings. In one Kingdom, Mario’s piloting a Bullet Bill across oozing purple pits. The next, he’s flinging himself upwards by possessing literal forks stuck in a cliffside made of candy. Yet somehow, despite these various elements, the game doesn’t miss a beat. It displays each captured enemy’s controls on screen, and trusts the player will figure the rest out themselves. Even rocks or manholes covering secret entrances will scuttle off once Mario takes over – it all just makes sense in context. When viewed from a distance, Super Mario Odyssey looks like one big journey that’s all over the place, but up close it’s a collection of small polished adventures strung together.
The Little Things That Count
There’s an enemy that’s been around since the original Super Mario Bros. called the Lava Bubble. It jumps up out of pools of lava and ignites Mario on contact. It does the same thing in Odyssey, except when captured, it opens up creative new avenues to explore. After Mario captures a Lava Bubble, he can quickly swim across and jump between pools of magma to his hearts’ content. Then there are Magmatos – tomatoes that melt into tiny puddles of lava when jumped on. If Mario, as a captured Lava Bubble, lands on one of these suckers, he creates a makeshift spot of lava to jump between. Suddenly you’re making your way up an otherwise unscalable cliffside. Surprisingly, the scenario only pops up a few times throughout Super Mario Odyssey.
In one Kingdom, and one Kingdom only, Mario can capture and control zippers that hold together the fabric of the world. As a zipper, he zooms across preset tracks until he un-zips a portion of wall or floor. This area then transforms into a new walkway, or even an entrance to a challenge room. The combination of spot-on audio work and HD rumble present in the Joy-Con and Pro Controller give a perfect impression that a zipper is actually being unzipped. It sounds like a zipper, it feels like a zipper. And the effect it has on this Kingdom is both entertaining and transformative. But it’s a small world, and soon Mario’s on to the next. I can’t imagine how much work it took to make the most realistic zipper sensations possible, but they did it. And they cornered it to one tiny area of the game.
Inversely, in every Kingdom there’s at least one 2D platforming section and it mimics the graphics and controls of the original Super Mario Bros. perfectly. In doing so, you’re reminded of just how far Mario has come, and how much better it feels to control him in the present. Though these sections are prevalent, they constantly change based on their context. If the section is wrapped around a cylindrical tower, the 2D Mario travels along the path, with the camera perfectly tracking his movements around the 3D tower. If bombs from the 3D exterior enter the fray, they become 2D as well, and turn into viable threats. From every costume in the game turning 8-bit to the surprise elements that pop up in each new 2D section, it’s impossible to ignore the superb execution of so many little ideas.
And that’s what Super Mario Odyssey really is – a combination of hundreds of little ideas. While the capture ability is certainly new for the series, it simply facilitates all these little ideas. The game doesn’t put all of its Yoshi eggs in one basket. Instead, it relishes in all the small, special experiences it can give the player.
Laidback and Simple
Though Super Mario Odyssey is a joy to experience, it’s not without its faults. The journey is magnificent and all its little pieces are sensational, but the entirety of the game’s campaign is a cakewalk. If a player’s dead set on doing the bare minimum to beat the game, they’d easily get through it in seven or eight hours. But, following in the last few Mario games’ footsteps, the post-game holds its true challenges. In fact, the post-game is considerably larger than the core campaign as well, clocking in at 30+ hours for completionists. And there’s a lot for them to track down.
Super Mario Odyssey has a little over 900 Power Moons scattered across its Kingdoms. Although many require exploring dangerous areas or defeating unique bosses to obtain, just as many feel unceremoniously simple to nab. See a shiny mound on the ground? Power Moon. Explore a little nook inside a wall? Power Moon. Just see a Power Moon in the middle of a flat area? Power Moon. The game gives these easily obtained collectibles away like candy, and they lose weight because of it. The systems of tasks and rewards throughout the game feel woefully unbalanced as a result.
Similarly, almost every Kingdom has two “Crazy Cap” stores, where you can spend regular gold coins or each Kingdom’s unique purple coins on costumes, Power Moons, and decorations for the Odyssey. It’s novel at first, and it’s fun to turn Mario into a chef or beach bum, but the costumes are almost entirely aesthetic. Gold coins, on the other hand, are far too ubiquitous. You quickly rack up over 1,000 of them with little to no effort. Dying costs you 10 gold coins, but besides that they mostly just function as currency to buy unnecessary items. It’s unfortunate that Nintendo didn’t find a better use for this age-old collectible, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
While The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a reinvention of its series, Super Mario Odyssey remixes and homages everything that came before. The sprawling Kingdoms feel like Super Mario 64. The inventive challenge rooms feel like Super Mario Galaxy. The 2D sections literally look and sound like the original Super Mario Bros. Although these bits and pieces combine with countless new ideas seamlessly, and the sum of its parts staggers in polish and execution, Super Mario Odyssey is more of a celebration of the series rather than a completely new chapter. And that’s okay.
Super Mario Odyssey is a culmination of the franchise thus far, and arguably stands as the pinnacle of the series. It feels like a game that’s been finished for months, and Nintendo’s just been polishing it to a shine in the interim, constantly impressing with its depth of imagination. It’s a testament to the strengths of the series, and the virtues of the platforming genre as a whole.
It’s what gaming, in its purest form, is capable of being: fun.